Traffic studies, concurrency under scrutiny in new city plan

3-2 vote denies changes to city’s comprehensive traffic plan

By Zaacchh Muurrddocckk Staff Writer
Sarasota Herald Tribune Monday Posted Oct 3, 2016 at 10:35 PM

SARASOTA — Changes to Sarasota’s comprehensive traffic plan need more scrutiny before they can be sent to state officials for formal review, city commissioners agreed Monday night.

In particular, potential changes to when new development must perform traffic studies and the criteria those studies consider must be reviewed more before commissioners revisit the changes in November.

The City Commission’s narrow 3-2 vote to deny the proposed changes is a major victory for the leaders of STOP!, a recently formed group of longtime downtown development critics proposing changes to the city’s traffic and development plans.

Group leaders such as former city commissioner Eileen Normile, bicycle and pedestrian advocate Mike Lasche, former planning board member Jennifer Ahearn-Koch and Laurel Park neighborhood Kate Lowman all successfully convinced the commission during a nearly three-hour hearing that the proposal undermined the city’s growth management requirements and inappropriately limited the number of traffic studies the city would require.

Traffic studies, concurrency under scrutiny in new city plan City planners don’t dispute fewer studies would be needed. But they highlight that none of the traffic studies over the past five years has ultimately triggered concurrency, which requires developers pay a “proportionate share” to handle of their new construction’s traffic impact on surrounding roads.

Instead, the proposed changes would encourage developers to pay the city’s “mobility fees,” which can be spent more flexibly on pedestrian, bicycle and other road improvement projects — not just the $83 million in widening concurrency requires now.

Ultimately, city planners, commissioners and STOP! members all agree that the state Legislature’s rollback of concurrency rules — conceived to make sure transportation improvements kept pace with development — make them nearly impossible to productively enforce on new development.

But they disagreed on whether rolling back traffic studies and concurrency in favor of mobility fees is the best way to proceed.

“This proposed resolution not only undoes the requirement for some traffic studies, but it also prevents us from having a tool to analyze the impact,” Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie said. “I can’t wrap my mind around how we better plan if we take the tool out of the toolbox.”

Commissioner Susan Chapman, who is close with leaders of STOP! and frequently advocates for more stringent development regulations, emphatically opposed the changes. She called them “backwards” and argued the city must revamp its traffic studies, redesign its engineering standards and complete a citywide mobility study before considering changes to its comprehensive traffic plan.

“This is a recipe for degrading our transportation network,” she said. “We need to consider multimodal options, but we also need to have some data that supports what we actually do in the future.”

City Engineer Alex DavisShaw and Chief Planner Ryan Chapdelain will review those questions before bringing the revised comprehensive plan update back to the board for consideration in November. The commission is required to send an update for state review by Dec. 1, they added.

More detailed changes to the increased traffic thresholds the city uses to require developers to complete a traffic study and particular criteria for what is and is not included in those studies likely need to be incorporated in upcoming form-based code — not in the comprehensive plan, they said.

That would mean only generally addressing traffic studies in the plan to be submitted before December but hosting public meetings to gather more input on traffic study improvements over the winter.

The comprehensive plan is instead designed to give city planners and neighborhoods the “big picture” and more flexibility about what projects to prioritize for funding using development fees,

DavisShaw said. “We’re trying to pull away from the standard road widening enhancements and give the neighborhoods more control,” she said. “What we’re trying to accomplish is to acknowledge that you can’t build your way out of congestion.”

The city must reconsider its methodology and requirements for traffic studies before settling on the updates, however, commissioners and opponents agreed.

“Staff has said we need to move people, not cars, as if we can walk and bike and take water taxis everywhere we go,” said attorney Dan Lobeck, one of the most vocal critics of development policies and advocate of updating traffic studies. “We need to give up on that. Instead I’m suggesting to you that what the people of Sarasota want is an ‘all of the above.”

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